How Connected Technologies are Driving the Next Generation of HVAC Professionals
The very nature of HVAC technology is changing.
HVAC professionals’ jobs are increasingly vital to the survival of the ecosystems in which they perform, particularly because of the extent of data and system integration used in modern facilities. Not only are these jobs becoming more important, but they are now more complex than ever before due to the ever-expanding impact of the Internet of Things (IoT).
In buildings of the past, the facility manager was the person who handled the mechanics and daily functions of the systems in the buildings they managed. Today’s facility managers are concerned with not only the building systems they have ownership of, but also with the plethora of smart, connected devices that interact with their facilities on a daily basis. Likewise equipment manufacturers are incorporating connected technologies directly into devices so they can take full advantage of the benefits of IoT, rather than obligating those installing the unit to add sensing and connective technologies after the fact.
One of the biggest challenges HVAC professionals face today is determining the way modern technology will be applied to business practices now and into the future. The ways in which a smart building is approached today is very different from how traditional buildings were thought of just five to ten years ago. Connected technologies that need to be integrated into modern building management systems (BMS) weren’t being applied five years ago, and didn’t exist a decade in the past.
As smart technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, new questions are being raised. How can it be integrated into building systems effectively and strategically? How do we interface it with the many other devices that are in our buildings and homes? How do we secure these systems against potential cyber-attacks?
This last question is becoming increasingly relevant, now that smart devices are always on and connected to the internet. The basic security attributes that need to be taken into consideration include secure access management, self-protection, privacy controls, embedded security and real-time information processes. Security issues that HVAC manufacturers and professionals will find especially distinctive to IoT are wide-ranging, made even more complicated by the sheer number of devices and the variety of ways they make decisions and produce data.
It’s clear that new connected technologies have significantly changed the jobs of HVAC equipment manufacturers and facility managers alike. Facility managers are learning new skill sets like data analysis and are becoming more tech savvy in their everyday jobs. At the same time, manufacturers are transforming into true technology companies making smart hardware components that are built to interact with other devices. It’s a new world order that brings with it a number of opportunities that were not previously possible.
Considerations for HVAC Manufacturers – It’s All About Integration
Nowadays, manufacturers of HVAC technology have to do much more than understand the needs of building occupants. They also have to take into account how the facility manager will use the equipment, especially in tandem with other IoT-enabled devices on the building’s network. As a result, HVAC manufacturers must ensure that the solutions they bring to the market use open and industry-standard communication protocols such as BACnet, LonWorks, ZigBee and EnOcean.
By using these open protocols, a manufacturer ensures that his or her system can be easily integrated with existing building equipment and expanded upon so facility managers don’t have to rip and replace their current technology investments. Today’s facility executives expect equipment will be built to integrate with future technology innovations in building management software and hardware. This guarantees the success and longevity of the installation, and of the building in which it is used.
The key word today is integration—ensuring all the various units are able to speak to each other—which previously wasn’t a concern for HVAC manufacturers. Just 10 to 15 years ago, manufacturers were only concerned with designing systems that were installed in one part of a building and provided temperature control or similar technology for that part of the building alone. Now, because of facility management controls, building analytics and other technologies that make up today’s smart buildings, HVAC manufacturers must ensure that their devices can easily integrate with and talk to all the various systems throughout the facility.
The easiest way to integrate new units with existing systems is to create units with the innate ability to speak a universal language, namely, the aforementioned industry standard protocols. Creating systems with a proprietary protocol is a thing of the past, thanks to the regulatory efforts of ASHRAE and similar standardization bodies. BACnet, one of the most popular building protocols, has remained at the forefront of the HVAC industry because of its ability to both evolve with the changing of technology and remain an accessible protocol that engineers are prepared to build for. The combination of manufacturers’ expertise with engineers’ demands for open protocol mean that we now have a standardized basis for the designing, engineering and manufacturing of HVAC equipment.
In addition to open communication, the very nature of HVAC technology is changing. Sensing devices used to have to be mounted on air conditioning devices as an aftermarket product—they didn’t come straight from the factory with such technology built in. Nowadays, most HVAC units are being delivered with a microprocessor on board, which provides new value in today’s era of evolving expectations from facility managers and building occupants.
Think about it like this: in a car bought ten years ago, the buyer’s expectations were mostly limited to physical comfort, a CD player and a quality radio. Today, there is a myriad of technology built into vehicles that is expected by the consumer, not to mention all the upgrades and options that buyers know will be offered to them down the road. Technology is progressing to change our expectation level, and in order to be responsive to the marketplace, it must be built to evolve at light-speed.
The advent of analytics is also greatly affecting the HVAC industry and driving advanced preventative maintenance features. A key benefit of intelligent analytics within HVAC systems is the ability to perform automated fault detection. Automated fault detection is analogous to a check engine light on a car—which all drivers rely upon to know if their vehicle is running properly. In the case of a new smart piece of A/C equipment, the “check engine light” could be an alarm message, using the BACnet open protocol, to let other devices know what’s wrong. That information is then sent to the cloud and the facility manager as well as the service provider.
Diagnostics and automated fault detection mean that facility managers can easily identify any equipment issues before a major failure takes place. Instead of using up time with monthly performance-tracking checkups, building analytics tools automatically analyze data on an ongoing basis and report it back to the facility manager. In many instances, building analytics services pay for themselves in a short period of time.
It’s clear that the value of automated fault detection is extremely high, making the need to include it in units during the manufacturing process all the more important. Incorporating analytic tools directly into HVAC units will ultimately give manufacturers a competitive edge.
The modern HVAC professional—from equipment manufacturers to those on the front line managing systems in today’s buildings—has been significantly impacted by connectivity and the IoT. HVAC manufacturers must be aware of the implications of the IoT when it comes to the security and openness of the products they create, and have to take into consideration the changing expectations of their end users. In a world of perpetual change, the one constant we can expect is that connectivity and data will continue to shape the next generation of tech-savvy HVAC professionals.